The key to healthier meals and less-harried mealtimes may just be a high-tech development away.
Help me get healthier meals when and where I want them, consumers pleaded when Internet Home Alliance, a nonprofit company in Monterey, Calif., asked what help they needed in the kitchen. The company responded by creating — for 20 households in Boston — futuristic kitchens that could do just that, a project called "The Mealtime Pilot Project."
In the families, both parents worked and had at least two pre-teen or teenage children. In other words, their lives were crazed with shuttling kids and themselves to work, to school, to soccer. Eating on the fly was fallout. And each family jumped at eight months of relief.
The first change was the addition of a Whirlpool Polara, essentially an oven-refrigerator, or as Tim Woods, vice president of Ecosystem Development, dubs it, a slow cooker on steroids.
Say, for instance, you know you won't be home until 6:30. You take the frozen lasagna out of the fridge in the morning and put it in the Polara, which keeps it cool, slowly brings it to room temperature and cooks it by 6:30 sharp, ready for your starved soccer stars as they come in the door. But oops, you forgot you have to drop off the team players after the game. So you call the Polara (this part's not on the market yet), type in 7:30 on the cell phone and the oven switches gears. Or you call the Polara via the Internet, again changing the time on the website instrument panel. And if no one shows or calls by 7, the oven returns to chill mode.
The second change was the addition of a high-speed Internet connection hooking up two devices. The first is a wireless Web tablet from Whirlpool, a removable tablet computer built into the front of the fridge door (the cradle doubles as a charger). Write a grocery list on the tablet by hand and a translator program converts it to text. Then send your grocery list to a home-delivery grocery service. The groceries soon arrive on your doorstep.
The second device is an "Icebox" but has nothing to do with chill. It's a cabinet-mounted entertainment and Web-surfing device made by Salton, with DVD player, TV connections, radio and touch screen. The screen flips down, and the wireless and detachable keyboard and remote let the kids do homework or let you wander as you look for recipes online.
"What the families liked best was the high-speed Internet connection," says Woods. "Before the pilot, they would hit the door from work and school and disperse to different rooms of the house to check e-mail or work on their computers. But now they could do that in the kitchen. And all the families perceived they were eating healthier meals" — whether or not they were — "simply because they were spending more time together in the kitchen."
Carla Graham, one of the participants and now a stay-at-home mom in Plano, Texas, loved the system because it made her life easier and let her spend more time with her kids. "It had everything — from the Icebox and Web tablet for online shopping, meal planning, scheduling and paying bills, to an oven that made preparing meals hassle free. My kitchen became the hub of our home."